“M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity” – More Isn’t Enough [MOVIE REVIEW]

Day and Night. Copyright M.C. Escher Company. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity,” the exquisite new documentary about one of the most inventive graphic artists of all times, beautifully captures why he has been and continues to be revered. Directed by Robin Lutz, it follows a playbook created by Escher himself when he stated, “I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: myself.” Using that very framework, Lutz and her co-writer Marijnke de Jong masterfully create this film from Escher’s own journals and letters with Stephen Fry voicing the words of Escher.

Aided by a wonderful score and use of classical music (sadly, none of which is identified in the end credits), cutting edge animation, and Escher’s own vividly reproduced woodcuts, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity” is a feast for the eye. Mercifully, there are no annoying reenactments and the very few interviews ably enhance the trip. And “trip” it is. Amusingly, Escher himself was perplexed by the “sudden” fame he experienced during the psychedelic 60s when posters, t-shirts, and tattoos adorned with his prints exploded on the scene. They were the very emblem of this era and for those of you who “lived” through it. Escher was everywhere. I still have a copy of The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher. Originally published in Holland in 1960, it was translated and first published in the U.S, in 1967. Our book was the Ballantine Books edition from 1971. It has always been a joy to revisit.

Using the journals, family photographs, home movies, and pictures of the places he visited and lived from the time of his birth until his death in 1972, a very full picture of Escher as a man and an artist emerges. Fry’s voice smoothly draws us into our protagonist as he details his studies and evolution into an artist intrigued and obsessed with patterns. As abstract as some of the patterns would seem to be to someone unacquainted with his development, all are drawn from nature and mathematical structure.

As one of his sons pointed out, Escher was fortunate to be born in the Netherlands to an approving family of wealth that funded his artistic ambitions from an early age until the Second World War.

Sent to the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts, his artistic skill was immediately recognized by one of his teachers, graphic artist Samuel de Mesquita who forcefully recommended that he transfer out of architecture. Throughout his life, Escher would credit de Mesquita’s influence. Escher became a master at woodblocks, exceeding the talent of his teachers at the school.

Band by Escher. Copyright M.C. Escher Company. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

He began his travels to sunnier climes following his studies, quickly making Italy his home. The countryside was a great influence on his art and one can see the beginnings of the geometry that invaded his compositions. It was in Rome that he married and had his three sons. After a trip to the Alhambra in Granada, his landscapes gave way to an obsession with the mosaic patterns he saw in the tiles. These designs are an example of what is called tessellation in which a surface is covered with geometric shapes that organically and repetitively intersect leaving no gaps between the patterns. The sketches he made of the tessellated tiles in the Alhambra became the basis for much of his future work.

The events unfolding in Europe in the late 30s drove him first from Italy where his elder son, by his own admission, was falling under the sway of Mussolini, to Switzerland, to Belgium, and finally back to the Netherlands. The total absorption in his art was disrupted by the realities of living under the Nazis who deported his beloved teacher de Mesquita to Auschwitz where he died. The Escher’s family money had, by this time, dried up and they suffered greatly from the privations of war. The need to find food superseded his ability to practice his art. But shortly after the war ended Life magazine came to call and did an article on Escher with illustrations of his woodcuts and graphic designs. It was then that he began to enjoy international recognition and with it, the means to support his family through his art.

Confused, almost insulted by the resurrection of his black and white woodcuts into florescent colored posters best seen under black light in the 60s, he couldn’t understand how his cerebral and rationalized drawing could possibly appeal to a younger generation seeking out that which is hip and wild and sexy. Of course he would appeal to the music-filled, art-obsessed drug culture of the 60s and 70s.

Hand with mirror by M.C. Escher. Copyright M.C. Escher Company. Photo courtesy Kino Lorber.

An early proponent was Graham Nash, rock musician par excellence of both The Hollies and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Interviewed in the film, Nash explains how it was Escher that made him see differently and look deeper into the work. This awakening no doubt contributed to his emergence as a photographer and lead him to found Nash Editions, originally in Manhattan Beach and now in Torrance. Through Nash Editions, Nash and his partners became innovators in the digital reproduction and scanning of fine art photography as well as in the creation of original art.

With a background score of classical music, Fry’s outstanding voice-over, and shots of how Escher’s woodblocks were made and duplicated, Lutz has given us a marvelous lesson in art. Escher’s graphics are shown in their original form as well as exhilarating animations of some of his most famous works like “The House of Stairs” where lizard-like creatures seemingly go either up or down an infinite staircase and “Reptiles” where lizards are seen to walk over objects and then back into a drawing of lizards who then walk over objects, ad infinitum. In his many works, Escher captured infinity.

In his own words, “I never feel fully at home with my colleagues. They pursue beauty, first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.” Lutz has helped us join that pursuit.

This is a marvelous pleasure of a film that leaves you wanting more and more and more, to infinity and beyond.

Opening February 5 at the Laemmle Virtual Cinemas and The South Bay Film Society .

 

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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